Dogfight Over Guadalcanal

The Guadalcanal Assault

Photo of Saburo SakaiThis photo, autographed by Japanese Imperial Navy fighter pilot Saburo Sakai, bears witness to his celebrity during the war.

On August 7, 1942, the opening day of the Guadalcanal campaign, American forces began shelling Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. It was the beginning of a U.S. push to capture the Japanese-controlled islands in the Pacific. Success was critical because the Japanese were rushing to complete a landing strip that would be a major threat to Allied shipping lanes between Australia and America.

Soon after the attack began, 27 Japanese bombers and an escort of 17 Zero fighters took off from Rabaul — Japan’s major stronghold and strategic base in the South Pacific. Their mission was to bomb the ships that were supporting the American attack. Among the fighter pilots was Japanese air ace Saburo Sakai.

As the Japanese squadron approached Guadalcanal, a group of eight American Wildcats took off from the U.S.S. Saratoga. Led by James “Pug” Southerland, they were aiming to shoot down the Japanese bombers before they could target the American ships.

At 1300 hours, the squadrons met. The Americans engaged the Japanese planes, and Southerland shot down the lead bomber — the first American air victory at Guadalcanal. The remaining Japanese bombers were forced to drop their payloads from almost four miles up, and not a single bomb found its target.

But as the Wildcats engaged the Japanese bombers, Southerland found himself in a fierce dogfight with a number of Zeros flown by young pilots. With his skill and instinct, he managed to out-fly the less experienced Japanese pilots even though he was outnumbered. Saburo Sakai, the Japanese ace, watched from above for a while, then finally dropped in to join the fray. One of the most dramatic and well-documented one-on-one dogfights in history had begun…

Picture of James "Pug" SoutherlandJames “Pug” Southerland, commanding a team of eight Grumman Wildcats fighters, took off from the deck of the U.S.S. Saratoga on August 7, 1942 to intercept and shoot down approaching Japanese “Zero” fighters led by Saburo Sakai.

Although they were flying very different planes, the two men were evenly matched. Each pilot knew the specific capabilities and liabilities of his own machine, and tried to sway the battle to his own advantage. The Zero was faster and more maneuverable, but the Wildcat had better armor, and could dive faster than the lighter Zero. Southerland quickly found that he couldn’t out-maneuver an expert Zero pilot like Sakai, but he was able to push the Wildcat to its performance limits and hold off Sakai’s furious assault. Sakai, meanwhile, was amazed at how much punishment that Wildcat could absorb. He peppered Pug’s plane with machine gun fire, but the bullets had no effect.

Turn for turn, climb for climb and dive for dive, the two pilots matched each other’s every move. Finally, with Sakai approaching from the rear, Southerland managed to “slam on the brakes” — cutting the throttle just as Sakai accelerated in pursuit. The Zero overshot, and Southerland prepared to fire. Sakai braced for the deadly impact of the Wildcat’s bullets into his flimsy fuselage… but the bullets never came.

Not waiting around to find out why, the surprised Sakai pulled up alongside the Wildcat. He noticed that Pug was injured, fell in behind him, and after a moment of indecision, opened fire with his big 20 mm cannons. In his memoirs, Sakai wrote that he decided not to kill the pilot, but rather, to aim for the Wildcat’s engine to give Pug a chance to bail out.

Southerland did just that, pitching himself out of the cockpit as the Wildcat went down. He parachuted into the jungle, deep in the heart of enemy territory. Bleeding and exhausted, he struggled through the brush, finally finding some local boys who were willing to risk their own lives to help him escape. With their assistance, he managed to elude the Japanese ground forces and meet up with his American Navy rescuers.

an American Grumman Wildcat flying next to a Japanese "Zero" fighter.This photo shows an American Grumman Wildcat flying next to a Japanese “Zero” fighter.

Sakai, meanwhile, watched Pug’s plane crash into the jungle, then headed off to find other American planes to attack. He soon found some, but was gravely wounded by an American tail gunner whose bullet went through the Zero’s windshield and into his head. Barely conscious, Sakai somehow managed to make the harrowing, five-hour flight back to his base in Rabaul, keeping himself lucid along the way by irritating his own wounds.

The Guadalcanal campaign, which began August 7, 1942 and didn’t end until February 9, 1943, was the first major Allied offensive against Japanese forces in the Pacific. Prior to that point, the U.S had been reacting to Japanese aggressiveness, and the battles tended to be short, stop-and-start affairs created by the offense-minded Japanese. But the battles of the Coral Sea proved that the U.S. and its Allies could not just defend themselves, they could go on the offensive and successfully take the fight to the Japanese.

At the battle of Midway in June of 1942, the Allied victory put a stop to Japan’s expansion, and Guadalcanal finally turned the conflict on its head. Short battles turned into a sustained war of attrition in which the Japanese single-minded attention to offense became a fatal liability. The U.S. forces in Guadalcanal had significant losses — almost 1,600 were killed — but the Japanese army and navy suffered staggering casualties: almost 15,000 men killed in battle and another 9,000 lost to disease. Adding to the losses, American troops took around 1,000 Japanese prisoners. Japan also lost 24 ships and more than 600 aircraft over the course of the campaign. This massive loss of men and resources put the Japanese forces on the defensive in the Pacific for the remainder of the war, and laid the stage for their ultimate defeat.

Although it was just one tiny skirmish in a much greater war, the dogfight between Pug Southerland and Saburo Sakai illustrated many of the strategic and technological factors that eventually determined the outcome of the war. But important questions about that encounter have remained unanswered until now. Why had Southerland failed to fire when he gained a brief advantage over Sakai? And had Sakai, an ace who finished the war with 64 kills to his credit, really aimed at Southerland’s engine to give him a chance to bail out? An expedition to the wreck site of Southerland’s plane, and a forensic investigation into the details of the famous air battle answer these questions and more in “Dogfight Over Guadalcanal.”